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In Context #20 (Fall 2008, pp. 9-10); copyright 2008 by The Nature Institute

A South African Initiative

Back in the winter of 2001-2002, two South Africans, Allan Kaplan and Sue Davidoff, came to The Nature Institute in order to work for three months with Craig and Henrike. Widely experienced as consultants to social organizations and communities, they wanted to bring the qualitative and phenomenological methods associated with Goethean science to bear upon their own work. Inspired by their time here, they returned to South Africa and worked toward the fulfillment of a double hope: to create the "Proteus Initiative" as a vehicle for bringing Goethean methods into social contexts where they are almost unknown; and to establish a wilderness retreat that would not only preserve a valuable and breathtakingly beautiful landscape for posterity, but also provide a site for some of their conferences and workshops.

house in wilderness

Now, these several years (and much work) later, Allan and Sue have seen at least the beginning of their dreams' fulfillment - quite vividly and concretely in the case of the new Towerland Wilderness Centre. This nature preserve is a center of biodiversity where three landscape types come together: Cape Floral Kingdom, Succulent Karoo (a karoo is a dry tableland that often rises in terraces to a considerable height), and Subtropical Thicket. The buildings are constructed of clay, stone, and wood, with plants on the roofs and with a high priority placed on the way they "nestle" into their natural contexts. The first gatherings in the wilderness have occurred during the past few months.

And now, too, the Proteus Initiative embraces Allan and Sue's consulting work throughout Africa, eastern and western Europe, and Brazil. As their website records, they employ "an understanding and practices first developed for seeing into living processes within the world of nature" and seek to "enable a new way of engaging with social and developmental phenomena: a way which may work effectively with social complexity."

The Proteus Initiative has taken on a number of dimensions, one of which is an in-depth, two year program in Goethean/ Social Practice crossover, which is due to start in Brazil in March 2009. Another is a three-week program that was offered in Cape Town this year, very successfully, and which will be extended and run again next year. A third is an M.A. program in Social Development Practice, conducted in Central and Eastern Europe over the last two years, with an emphasis on a Goethean approach. The latter program is now accredited by London Metropolitan University.

Noting that qualitative thinking is "a radical departure from the more conventional quantitative and analytic approach," Allan wrote the following in a special issue of Janus Head co-edited by Craig Holdrege and devoted to Goethean methods:

I regard social situations as organic (alive) phenomena. I try to understand that which I'm working with - and am part of - qualitatively, which is a different way of pursuing the work from the prevailing search for cause and effect, from reduction into parts which we attempt to control and predict. Social phenomena are complex and emergent, not linear but simultaneous. I search for a way of appreciating and facilitating, rather than explaining and controlling. This search leads me to the phenomenological (qualitative) methodology developed by J. W. von Goethe.

Being alive, every organism, every social situation, is continually reproducing, recreating itself, constantly metamorphosing; as it lives, it and its environment transform through ongoing interaction, and the organism is never at rest, always in change, always in a state of becoming. This is what it means to be alive - the organism creating the organism anew from out of itself and its interactions with its (inevitably) changing context. So the "character" of the organism is continually evolving, almost as a "narrative thread," the life story of the organism. How then would we "read" such character?... A qualitative approach would be one that seeks to portray an organic phenomenon by observing each part as expressive of its character - which we may apprehend by reading its gesture. Every organism, at any particular moment in its life, is present in the world in a particular way, and that way of being present, how the parts belong together, can be understood as a particular gesture, like the expression on a loved one's face - a gesture of consciousness. Such a gesture cannot be weighed or measured, or analysed - it disappears like mist before such approaches - but it can be "read." It can be read qualitatively, as a quality. Not a sense perception, but a perception of how the sensory "parts" belong together, as one "whole."

You'll find the website for both the Proteus Initiative and the Towerland Wilderness Centre at http://www.

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